Seth Knothe looked like Bo Jackson for a second. Bishop Kelly’s 6-foot-1, 210-pound senior running back attacked the Pocatello defense with this fury and physicality that had the Thunder on their heels.
Knothe’s first three runs went for nearly 50 total yards. The chain gang at Holt Arena almost could keep up with how quickly the Knights marched down the field. Then Bishop Kelly did it again. And again.
Everyone in the dome looked up at a scoreboard that felt like Deja Vu: 14-0 Bishop Kelly. If the flashbacks hadn’t already come, they were beginning to form – memories from Bishop Kelly’s 35-0 dismantling of Pocatello during last year’s playoffs.
The Knights exposed all the flaws of Pocatello last season. The Thunder were small, inexperienced, a ways away from playing with the big boys of 4A. For a moment Friday night, all those doubts came back to form like a sponge dipped in water.
The Thunder have been adamant this season they are a resilient bunch. Pocatello has preached brotherhood and family and overcoming adversity. Then they showed what that looks like, what makes this Pocatello team so much different from the others that have come before. They turned the tides and came out with a 28-17 win over Bishop Kelly (8-3) to advance to the 4A semifinals, where they’ll play the winner of Skyline/Vallivue.
“When it’s a do-or-die situation like that, it’s either beat their intensity or pack it in and our guys rose to the occasion,” said Poky coach Dave Spillett. “Now we’re off to our next goal. We wanted to win the conference championship. We wanted to be the team that ended the season for BK. And we want to win a state championship.”
Pocatello has not been to the promise land since 2006, a 15-year hiatus that hasn’t been very fruitful. Before the Thunder knocked off Bonneville last week, Spillett couldn’t remember the last time Pocatello won a playoff game. This is not a program like, say, Bishop Kelly that has recent history to back up its confidence.
Yet, the Thunder think they are the best 4A team in the state. They thought that on Friday night. They thought that when they beat Preston to take control of the district last month. Heck, they thought that after a 49-point season-opening shutout against Ogden (UT).
Pocatello’s confidence hasn’t wavered. Outsiders are simply beginning to believe them. After Friday, it’s easy to see why.
Facing a deficit early, Pocatello didn’t flinch. It simply put the ball into the hands of quarterback Ryan Payne and let him take shots down the field. In the second quarter alone, Payne hit sophomore Julian Bowie in the middle of the field for what became a 46-yard gain. Then he threw a jump ball to senior Matt Christensen for a 16-yard touchdown. On the next possession, Bowie caught a 36-yard rainbow with his fingertips to tie the game.
“We just have dudes everywhere,” Bowie said.
“They tried picking their poison,” Payne said. “It doesn’t work with two great outside receivers.”
Bowie finished with just those two catches for a team-high 82 yards. Christensen reeled in five passes for almost 50 yards. Running back Ryken Echo Hawk had 11 of his 18 rushes go for two yards or less but still found ways to create big plays, gaining 67 yards and scoring the go-ahead touchdown.
And Payne finished with 225 yards and three scores – the prettiest of which came in the second half. Hanging onto a four-point lead late in the third quarter, Pocatello was deep in Knights’ territory facing a 3rd-and-8. Bowie and Christensen were both being doubled on the left side of the field, which meant junior receiver Chance Crittenden was single-covered on the right side.
Payne looked left then unloaded a beautiful deep ball to a wide-open Crittenden, whose only catch of the night turned into a back-breaking 68-yard score.
“We knew we would have some matchup problems for them,” Spillett said. “We knew we could probably hit them on some deep seams but they stayed tight in the seams so we took out shots on the outside. That’s what we do … We’re really dangerous to cover.”
For all the success Payne and Pocatello’s offense enjoyed on Friday, the unit should really be thanking its defense. The Thunder pitched a second-half shutout and extinguished any flame of hope the Knights ever had.
The Thunder picked off Bishop Kelly quarterback Hadley Smith three times in the second half alone. Sophomore Carson Christensen’s interception on the first drive of the second half set up the Poky offense for a score two plays later. Later in the third, the Knights were in the red zone and Smith aired a pass to the end zone for a possible go-ahead touchdown. Instead, Thunder defensive back Krue Hales leapt backwards and snagged it for his first of two picks on the night.
“I knew I was going to be able to make a play,” Hales said. “I was just waiting for them to target my side.”
Hales continued, exuding the sort of confidence that has swept through the Pocatello program like a plague.
“We just never fell apart. We knew we were going to be able to make plays,” he said. “That was probably the best game I’ve ever seen us stay together. We knew we were going to be able to come out with a ‘W’ tonight.”